Goodbye France, Hello Dubai

All right Dubai. I’m ready for you. I think!

It’s been exactly one year since I quit my corporate job in Hong Kong and took a ‘gap year’ at the ripe old age of 29, and now the las lap has come to an end. The idea of bumming around and travelling for a year is something that a lot of people dream of doing, and I was very fortunate to have been able to do it, because I think there are few opportunities in life when you are in the right place at the right time, and have enough money and the freedom to do it. But, I am glad that is is almost over, and that in two days I will arrive in my new home in Dubai to start living a normal life again. After a year of nomadic living, I am really looking forward to simple things, like sleeping in my own bed on my own pillow… having a fully stocked kitchen… waking up in the same place every day… and looking through a cupboard full of clothes instead of a suitcase!

I will however be incredibly sad to say farewell to France. The five weeks have passed by so quickly. I am sure going to miss the French approach to life: the ‘enjoy today, don’t worry about tomorrow’ mentality, the obligatory glass of wine at lunch, and the wonderful bliss of sinking into your bed for the mandatory afternoon siesta. After years of working in fast-paced non-stop Asian countries, spending a few weeks in France feels like life in slow motion. Moving to Dubai is going to be an adjustment!

So, since these are my last few days, I have been trying to make the most of it by just going out, walking around, and enjoying the town. Some days I sit in the square on a bench, and people watch. Some days I just wander around the tiny cobble stoned streets and take pictures. Some days I just meander around the markets, taking in the sights and smells, listening to people talking and laughing. If only there was some way to stay longer….

Here are some of the most recent pictures around town:

Students on a field trip

The very weird St. Etienne Cathedral — two churches smushed together

Old Tudor style building

Just love the door knockers!

The honeymoon we never had!

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Time to wine

According to this postcard from a vineyard in Bordeaux, in order to have some moderation in your drinking, follow these basic rules: you should have one day a week when you don’t drink, women should only have two glasses at any time, men should only have three, and four should be the maximum in any occasion. What a pile of merde!

Only two glasses for women? What, one per ovary?

This trip to Bordeaux was actually done on a bus tour. Usually package tours are something I avoid like the plague — must be the control freak inside me that hates being stuck somewhere without any option of escape, possibly with people who are very annoying, and forced to eat food that is probably very bad. But considering the tour was free, and both my mother and my mother-in-law were in town to visit us in France, we decided to bite the bullet and take them. After all, after a few glasses of wine, family tends to get along better!

It was a long, long trip from Toulouse to Bordeaux. Too long, to be honest. It took almost three hours to get there and three hours back. In total we travelled 420 kilometres! We spent so much time on the bus that we ended up spending just two hours in the city of Bordeaux itself, but we did get a nice look around. With a population of about 240,000 it is quite a bit smaller than Toulouse. And if Toulouse is the Pink City, then Bordeaux is the White City, with almost every building made from limestone.

Outside the Bordeaux Theatre

Heading to the restaurant

Très romantique!

All in all the trip was fine, and we did get to enjoy the wine tasting at a real Bordeaux winery that provided us with about a dozen varieties to taste. But let’s be honest — the real reason why most people go on ‘wine tasting’ tours is for wine drinking. None of us are pros though we know what tastes good. Nobody on the tour was spitting out the wine, hell no! That would be wasteful. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my daily two glasses of wine….

France could fete!

 

So now I know where we get it from. Trinidad was once a French colony and I have realised that we have been very fortunate to inherit the following from their culture: a compulsion to mako everyone around them, a flirtatious manner, a ‘don’t worry about tomorrow’ attitude, and a love of music, liming, drinking and dancing.

Just four days ago we ran into a gay pride demonstration, and today yet again we ran into another parade by complete accident. This time it was the Fete de la Musique — a massive national musical festival all over France. It fell on a Tuesday this year but that didn’t seem to dissuade anybody from going out and getting on bad. And just like Trinis, the French don’t go out until 10 pm or preferably later. How will people get to work tomorrow? Who cares!

Here’s some shots from the festival. It’s still going strong outside, though the bands have mostly been replaced by huge DJ stages playing loud rave music. Ugh. Obviously getting older!

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Liberté, égalité, fraternité?

Everyone seems to be protesting these days. In Saudi Arabia, women are fighting for their right to be able to drive a car and have their own personal mobility. In Greece, everyone is fighting the government’s new austerity measures. Moroccans are protesting against their King’s absolute power. In a small town in China, people rioted against the police abuse of a pregnant street vendor. Even in peaceful Canada, hockey fans went berserk after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup.

Here in Toulouse, on a normal looking Saturday morning, we somehow found ourselves inadvertently walking smack dab into the middle of a huge protest. At first we weren’t sure what it was… a parade or a festival or what? There were a lot of young people running up the street to get in on the action, so we decided to follow them and see what was up. On the boulevard, we saw the trucks coming and people gathering, and a lot of rainbow flags. And judging by the high ratio of tight pants and wigs, loud music, and confetti and foam machines, we figured it must be a gay pride parade. Excellent! I love pride parades.

Too cool to be homophobic

But then on another side of town, we ran into another much less raucous parade with people holding up banners and signs and marching peacefully up the road. That’s when it suddenly clicked: it wasn’t just a gay pride parade. A few days before I had read in the papers that the French parliament voted against same-sex marriage, and these people were fighting for their right to marry the person they choose, regardless of what kind of junk you’ve got in your trunk.

Love the t-shirt, but focus on the banner

Drumming for their rights

Because families come in all shapes and sizes

 

Bums in the park…

And the street… and the sidewalk… and the squares… and the doorsteps… and under the bridges… and outside the supermarkets… bums bums all over the place! I keep wondering, for a town so small (about 400,000 people) in a country so prosperous, why are there so many homeless people in Toulouse?

What happened to ‘no loitering’?

I’m not sure if they’re really homeless, or just unemployed. But from what I’ve observed these few weeks, all have dogs, and unfailingly are sitting around drinking $1 cans of 8.5% beer. I have a bit of a hard time sympathising with these guys. I’ve been to a lot of poor countries in South East Asia and seen some serious poverty — people living in shacks, with no running water, no food, people who can’t afford to send their kids to school. Even in Trinidad the homeless are in a pretty bad state and living on the brink.

French bums, on the other hand, look pretty healthy, many of them are young and strong, and they seem to have enough cash for tattoos, chunky jewellry, cigarettes and dog food. They don’t look like they’re starving. People from all over the Middle East and Africa migrate to France and will do any job to make their lives better… cleaning toilets, working as waitresses, street sweepers, whatever. So at the risk of sounding like a snob, what’s the problem with these guys?

Liming in Toulouse

My friends whom I just stayed with in London just popped over to Toulouse for the last few days, taking a short break and exploring the Pink City. Mostly we have been walking around, taking pictures, and eating a lot of amazing food and drinking far too much wine. Yesterday in particular was a lovely day, 25’C and wonderful warm weather. We poked about in an antique market and ended up at my favourite market where all the hippies and musicians hang out on a weekend, and where loads of good fresh food is for sale, including whole roasted rabbit, hand made ravioli, and real honeycomb. Oh Toulouse, why does everything have to taste so good here and be so beautiful! It is going to be very hard to leave in a few weeks….

Anyways, here is a little slideshow of this weekend in Toulouse:

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5,000 Calories and Counting

I thought that things like a massive roti full of chicken, bodi and pumpkin and so heavy you have to hold it with two hands was something that sits heavily in your stomach. I thought that a Sunday lunch, with a big piece of macaroni pie, stew chicken and callalloo chased with a cold beer was the type of thing to make you lie down and rub your bloated belly in contentment. I thought that spoiling yourself with a full — not a half — rack of ribs was one of those decadent indulgences that left you full and pleased (and maybe a little guilty). But I have never had anything as rich, and succulent, and sinful, and FILLING, as Toulouse’s famous dish, cassoulet!

Don’t eat something before you go

I know it doesn’t look like much — a clay pot full of beans? But don’t be fooled; this pot contains quite a mouthful. Mixed in with all those beans (haricot, by the way) is a Toulouse sausage, a huge chunk of salted pork with some pieces of pork fat thrown in, and a huge piece of duck. This slow-cooked stew tastes so amazing because it is full of, if I may be honest, really juicy fatty bits that stew everything together. Some versions also have liver or even fois gras. Amazingly, though cassoulet seems so decadent, it apparently has its roots in peasant cuisine where meat was never thrown away and everything has a use, especially in the winter.

But I have to be honest; although it was absolutely delicious, as I ate it my stomach began scolding me after about five minutes. ‘What is this stuff? Whoa this is heavy stuff man! What is this? Sausage? AND duck? AND pork? Wait a minute, you don’t expect me to digest ALL of this food, do you? And fresh bread too, dipped in the gravy? Mercy! Mercy, I beg you!’  is what my stomach said, obviously dismayed at the mammoth task I had just presented it with. But, I ignored it, and carried on the best I could, though in the end I relented, and could not finish the dish.

So, without a doubt cassoulet is amazing, and something to for sure try at least once in your life, especially if you are in Toulouse. Just don’t try to have it every day.

La vie en rose

Toulouse is nicknamed ‘The Pink City’ and any visitor to the city will see why — almost every building is made of bricks of different shades of pink which come from this region. The colours range from an orangey sandy colour to a light dusty baby pink. Even the rooftops are made with pink or reddish tiles. Just looking out from our balcony is like looking through rose-coloured glasses…

Sunlight hits the building

At Place de Capitole

Bright colours on Rue du Taur

 

Doggy do right

French people seem to be mad about dogs. Everyone has one, whether on a leash, in a bag, in a basket on their bicycle, or even carrying them around in their arms like a baby. (At least they don’t put them in clothing, as people tend to do in Asia.) Even homeless people all have dogs, and Toulouse (and Paris too, come to think of it) apparently has a lot of homeless people. I really don’t know why… perfectly healthy looking young people, living in tents by the river, and sleeping on sidewalks. And without fail, all of them have dogs, probably both for companionship, and for protection.

‘Change for dog food, mister?’

Now the problem with living in a town full of dogs is that there is merde everywhere, and I hope you don’t need me to translate that word for you. This is definitely something I do not like at all about France! Sidewalks with doggy doo all over the place, smeared on people’s shoes or left in huge piles in the middle of the walkway for people to dodge. What is up with this? How can you watch your dog do this on a public sidewalk, and then just walk away and leave it for people to step in? In most places in Asia this wouldn’t be allowed. In Hong Kong it is the law to walk with a plastic bag to pick up your dog’s business, and there are bins everywhere specifically for disposing of these bags. But in France, you have to always watch where you step or you really get into the thick of it!

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Today in Toulouse

Today I went to the nearby Sunday market at St. Aubin’s square where I found all of the following and more: cheese… fresh bread… anchovies… tapenades… olives… cakes… pastries… empanadas… giant pots of paella… chickens turning on a hot rotisserie… tables full of herbs and spices… fresh basil, rosemary and dill… I wanted to eat absolutely everything!

Can I try one of each?

Massive loaves of bread!

Cinnamon and nutmeg

The market was also great for people watching and taking in the vibes. Just from being here a few days, I can see a vast difference in their style. The women seem to love dressing up in nice dresses and flowery skirts instead of just jeans and tops, and the men (at least some of them) also put on proper dress shirts. However, there are also a lot of grubby street performers, hippies in baggy pants dancing in drum circles, and half-drunk street musicians. French kids are extremely cute, and almost everyone seems to have a dog, but no one seems to pick up the dog poop so you find piles of it absolutely everywhere. And above all, people just seem very relaxed. Must be all the wine?

Got to make money to buy wine…

Trying to find a home for a kitten

Tomorrow — more exploring of the town.

Le flâneur de Paris

In French, the word “flâneur” means to wander around the city streets, strolling semi-aimlessly, enjoying the sights, the sounds, and the smells of every day life. If my first day in Paris was a high-speed tour of a jam-packed itinerary, on my second day I decided to slow down my pace, and do a little lounging about, like the locals.

Luckily I was staying in Montmarte, which is a wonderful area for flâneur.   A hilly part of an otherwise mostly flat city, Montmarte is perfect for strolling about through the tiny cobble-stoned streets, slowly climbing up the hills and taking in far reaching views of all of Paris below, including the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

The area is primarily known for being an artist’s hangout, having once been home to the likes of Picasso, Dali, Monet, and van Gogh. Today a small square hosts dozens of street performers, painters, and crafters. At 10 am, people were already sitting nonchalantly in the cafes, smoking and drinking a glass of wine. I can see why artists would like to live here!

Artists selling their goods

Pretty as a portrait

At the square, full of little bars and art shops

But above all, this hill top is famous for it’s beautiful Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Basilique du Sacré-Cœur). Even from the street level in the area around my hotel, you can see the white domes of the Basilica towering up above in the distance. Still a functioning church, the tourists are luckily still allowed in, even during mass, once they keep quiet and follow the walking route around the edges of the main hall. I wish I could have taken pictures inside, as it is incredibly beautiful, but photography was forbidden.

 Entrance of the Basilica

After enjoying the sauntering around, I headed back down into town, and hopped on the Metro down to the Champs-Élysées as I wanted to see the real Jardin des Tuileries and this was after all my last afternoon in Paris. The Jardin des Tuileries also leads up to the Louvre, so I thought it would be a pleasant stroll.

The perfect woman?

Local boys playing football

Tout selling Eiffel Tower keychains outside the Louvre

And then, since I was at the Louvre, I figured that although I had seen a lot of museums in London (which are all free, by the way… amazing), I may not get a second chance to see the Louvre, so I coughed up the 10 euros entrance fee and went in. I only had an hour, as it closes at 5.30, but at hour is better than nothing.

The famed Pyramid, which is the entrance

With only an hour or so, I decided to make a bee-line for the Italian artists. There was a huge mob by the Mona Lisa, no doubt the most famous painting in that whole section. She was actually sectioned away, carefully encased in glass, unlike the other paintings that are hanging open on the walls. The Mona Lisa was quite small, surprisingly, but had about a 100 people with expensive cameras taking pictures of it. What I liked about the Italian art section is that the women in the paintings were all voluptuous and curvy all over, like me. I suppose a few hundred years ago, the ideal woman looked more like me and less like the average supermodel of 2011. I was obviously born in the wrong era…

Anyways, the following morning I boarded a TGV train from France down to Toulouse to meet my husband, and this is where we will stay for five weeks as he does some training for his new job. Lucky for me I get to tag along and take advantage of the situation! Although two days in Paris was great, I am very glad to be in a smaller and more laid-back city. Paris was a bit overwhelming and fast paced, where as Toulousians remind me a bit of Tobagonians — they don’t seem to do anything in a hurry!

Coming soon, Tales from Toulouse.

Adieu London, Bounjour Paris!

And just like that, I was in France. The Eurostar train from London to Paris takes just two hours and fifteen minutes. We passed through the underwater channel, and then voila! Goodbye England. Amazing how close everything is in Europe. If only they had such high speed trains connecting Asia together!

From Gare de Nord (North Terminal) I decided to take a taxi to the hotel, called Hotel Vintimille. Here’s a picture of it from the outside:

Hotel Vintimille

Looks pretty nice, right? It’s in a great location, a stone’s throw from the real Moulin Rouge (which is actually pretty crap, if you ask me, and quite a disappointment…). However, I will be honest, the hotel is terrible. First of all, it’s old, the elevator is about 100 years old, the bed has given me a really bad 24-hour neck pain, and the bed is a bit itchy. So if you happen to have come across this webpage because you were looking for a review of Hotel Vintimille, do not stay here!

Anyways, another thing that I immediately noticed about Paris is how expensive it is here. You obviously need to make a hell of a lot of money to really enjoy Paris life. A beer is easily 5 euro in a restaurant: about US$ 7.20 or almost TT 50! Just insane. At my first dinner I treated myself to a little canister of wine, but other than that, I’m going ghetto style and buying cold cans of beer from the grocery stores. What a rip!

But ah, how can one complain in Paris? The city of love, the city of history. The city full of world famous attractions. I suppose the high prices are just part of the package. Paris is a surprisingly diverse place, with many Middle Eastern and African people. And of course millions of tourists from every corner of the globe. Many people seem to speak English which is a big help. And generally getting around is pretty easy and the Metro train system is very thorough.

So here is what I was up to today, on my first day out in Paris, most of which I am sure will need no introduction… Of course, I first hit up the Champes Elysées, to see two very well known sites…

Arc de triomphe

Eiffel Tower, in the background (it was actualy quite ugly close up)

Then headed over to the Cathderal of Notre Dame, which was really quite amazing.

Approaching the Cathedral

View of the inside, which really does not show how monumental it actually is

Then I ventured into the nearby Latin Quarter, which was quite a funky area with endless restaurants, bars and souvenier shops…

Street art

Street food! Yum!

All in all, my first day in Paris was very nice, though a bit exhausting. The day pass for sure came in handy (9 euros) to use the Metro many many times to get around. Tomorrow is my last day, and I will be exploring more of the east side of this great city.

Oh, and by the way, yes, the baguettes are absolutely freaking amazing. I would come here again just for the bread.

More pictures to come soon!

Norwich, Stamford and Cambridge

Visiting another old friend gave me the perfect excuse to make a second short trip out of London and see other parts of England. This time I headed north to Norwich to visit an old chum whom I have known since I was about 13 or so, and who recently migrated to the UK with her family. Norwich was an easy two hour train ride from London, and a quaint enough little town to entertain myself while my friend was busy during the day. Known as a university town, it has a very young, vibrant feel with hundreds of thousands of bright-faced students in the streets, though it also seems to have a hell of a lot of older folks who are rabid for shopping in Norwich’s many lovely shops.

Good marketing for a pub!

Pretty riverside homes

Sun shining on Norwich Cathedral

After Norwich, we made a brief stopover in the small town of Stamford, to visit my friend’s family. Lovely stone buildings, nice market area, and very very quiet streets.

Downtown Stamford

And after just one night we were off again to visit Cambridge, as we were invited to a farewell BBQ lime. We arrived a few hours early to go punting along the River Cam — a popular and famous pastime of Cambridge folks. Those of you who don’t know what punting is (like me), it’s a style of river boat whereby the punter (guide) stands at the back of the boat, and with a long pole pushes and directs the boats through the shallow and sometimes narrow canals and under bridges.

This was definitely one of the favourite parts of my whole England trip because the river was a bit mad! It was a Sunday, so the place was swarming with tourists and exchange students, and, even worse, they are actually allowed to take out the boat themselves to try punting! As you can imagine, there were more than a few collisions, boats turning in the wrong direction, and people generally doing all kinds of stupidness out in the water. Good fun!

Not sure why Jane and I are putting on such sexy faces, but we’re ready to go!

Passing one of the many university halls

Our expert guide Chris, pointing out the major sights

Back on dry land, we came across this oddball street performer who was definitely working hard for the 50 pence that people kept putting in his collection. Anyone can stand up on the side of the road and play a guitar, but this guy took it to a whole new level. Love it!

For the record, he was playing Radiohead, and quite well too

And now I am back in London, doing last minute laundry and packing up my suitcase to get ready for the next leg of the journey — the Eurostar train from London to Paris, where I stay for three days. I’ve never done train travel before so it is most exciting. And I have to say a huge thank you to my friends in London who put up with me coming and going from their flat, and who fed me immense amounts of really delicious food and probably too much wine. Staying with someone is infinitely better than just staying in a hotel and I hope they will come visit us in Dubai.

Thank you Katie and Peter!!

In an English Garden

On Thursday I left the city streets of London and headed about an hour south to the little town of Send, in Surrey, to visit a Trini friend who has been living here in England for seven or eight years now. It is amazing how the time really flies — the last time I saw her, she was jumping off of the jetty with her new husband after their wedding down-the-islands. And now she had an English home, two English kids, and a very English life!

Getting out of the city and seeing the English countryside was lovely. Big homes, green gardens, farm land, rivers with ducks in them… very picturesque. And luckily for me it’s been amazing weather. We took a nice long walk along the River Wey and ate proper fish and chips in The Anchor pub and drank a cold pint in the warm summer sun. London has a hell of a lot of things to offer, but I can see why many people, especially those with small kids, leave the city and head for greener pastures.

So, here are some shots from my trip to the country:

House boat

The quaint Anchor Pub

Zoe and little Adam

Busy at work

Soon I have another trip into a small city to the north, Norwich, to visit another Trini friend who has settled there. It is really great to get to see different parts of England and not just London.

Lovely London

You know what I love about London? It’s old. And I don’t mean old and decrepit. It’s old and beautiful. Everywhere you look, there are well preserved brick buildings, stone towers, fantastic old architecture. This is old world old. And this is the kind of old that is hard to find in Asia. China of course has old relics, but generally everything old has been demolished to make way for 100-storey highrises. In Hong Kong, bits and pieces of the colonial history remain, but again, everything has been knocked down and rebuilt. Tokyo barely survived the fire bombing of World War II, so although it is an ancient culture, little of its old architecture remains.

But London… every street, every corner, every block still retains its glorious history. The buildings have been not only preserved, but well maintained and cherished. I imagine this is what I will find in other parts of Europe, when I eventually go there — cities that reflect their history and grandeur through their architecture. This is the kind of history that lacks in Asia, where the trend is to be out with the old, and in with the new. And coming from Trinidad, where probably the oldest buildings are a tiny strip called The Magnificent Seven around the Savannah, this kind of history really turns me on.

So like a good tourist, I’ve been to see most of the top sights. Here are some of the highlights:

Big Ben and the House of Parliament

Trafalgar Square

Changing Guards at Buckingham Palace

Sunday Market in Brick Lane (see next picture of the curry)

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

The Gherkin, with a pretty little chuch in front

But, once you’ve seen the main attractions, what else is there to do? Luckily, London is a city of action. Almost all the museums and galleries are free entry, and there is always a market going on somewhere with amazing food and live music and arts and crafts and all kinds of action. Just marvelous.

Here are some of the more unusual things I’ve done in the last few days, off the beaten tourist track:

At the ‘Clink Museum’ — one of London’s very first prisons. Look closely at the paper and you’ll see it says that the cat-o-nines was still used in Trinidad in 2005!

The ‘Old Operating Theatre’ — one of the first in London where students could watch and learn during surgeries. Quite interesting!

Poking around in antique markets at Spitalfields Old Market

General People Mako-ing on the Tube

Tomorrow I head out of London to a smaller town, to the south, to visit another Trini friend who lives here and is married to a Brit. Will definitely be good to catch up with people who have settled here and see what they are up to, and see other parts of England.

Next blog post — notes from a small town!